His is the name I only expect to hear inside the confines of my own home, or see on websites charting the progress of the lower ranked tennis professionals. For so long, he’s been the unknown pro worldwide, and the overlooked Brit at home. To the average person, who won’t care to look beneath his surface results, James Ward is a background character. Just another of the thousand or so men fighting unknown on the professional circuit.
Well. That was the case.
However, when you’ve been your country’s Davis Cup hero for three straight years, people have to sit up and take a bit of notice. And that’s precisely what James has been – a Davis Cup hero. Most Brits probably don’t recall the days when Andy Murray declined to participate in the team event. It was actually as recently as 2013 – when James Ward and Dan Evans flew Team GB to a miraculous victory, gaining a place in the World Group play-offs. Facing Russia, the duo fought incredibly to see off opponents well above their respective rankings, and resurrected Britain from a doom-enthralled 2-0 deficit.
Only then did Murray express interest in competing on this stage again.
This is not pointing a finger at Murray, but highlighting the accomplishments of Ward – who has, once more, been overshadowed by his successful compatriot. Much respect was due the Englishman after his pretty much tie-claiming victory over Sam Querrey last year, but that respect was only turned into renowned recognition that early March weekend when – once again – James came from two sets down to claim a dramatic first round, Davis Cup triumph.
Big difference: This time, the world number 111 took down the world number 20.
Say what you like about about the way Sam and John played – as many disappointed Americans loudly did. But in 99% of tennis matches won or lost, the outcome is going to have the recipient of the loss partly to blame. Nobody’s perfect.
The fact is, James Ward has proven he’s no one-hit wonder.
And the fact is, James Ward played fantastic tennis.
Which introduces some questions regarding him…
Queen’s Club, June 2011. That’s where world number 216 James Ward made his shock, lone-to-date ATP semi-final. En route to a well-contested 6-3, 7-6 loss to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the Briton defeated the likes of Stan Wawrinka and Sam Querrey, the defending champion. And the latter is not an indication that Querrey played another poor match – but proof that James’ wins, on two different surfaces, were no fluke.
A key fact to note on that career-best run of Ward’s is where the tournament was held: In London. England. Ensuring he was surrounded by the patriotic support of his countrymen and women.
It’s probably no secret that James Ward thrives on the rousing cheers of his fellow Brits. They helped push him to five sets at Wimbledon against then world number 10 Mardy Fish, and time and again we have seen the sober-faced Londoner raise his arms up and down in a plea for the volume to raise in his favour.
Nothing arrogant. It’s just James knowing what James needs.
So, is that it? The factors contributing to his Davis Cup success laid bare?
It was something that crossed my mind as I observed James during his come-from-behind victory over Isner. As the crowd frenzy drove him on, I remembered the times he’s fallen in early rounds at British tournaments – and regularly elsewhere – and looked for some deeper reasons to indicate why the Davis Cup was where he discovered success.
I found two.
The first was on-court coaching. Quite obvious really, but this was the first time I considered it’s contribution.
With this asset to the game only available to the WTA players, James Ward has gone it alone on tour – all too often falling from winning positions, unable to hold it together for a considerable length of time.
Arguably, that’s how it should be in the game. Your coach is with you, assisting your progress, the majority of every day. Can a teacher assist students in an exam and not be accused of cheating? When it comes to court time, it’s down to you to put what you’ve learnt into practise – and with the women constantly fighting for equality, surely this is one rule they should be shunning.
But that’s another story.
Observing James, as sober-faced as ever and seemingly unheeding as Leon Smith talked him through changeovers, you might not have thought the words were having any effect on the 28-year-old. But is it not the same facial expression he wears 24/7? The same one he wears while summoning crowd support?
Just having that reassuring voice – to encourage him or guide him or simply to keep him calm – makes all the difference for James Ward.
The same can be said for the second observation that drives James home: The team atmosphere. Time and again during the Isner match, cameras reverted to a wild Andy Murray, yelling and cheering and fist-pumping his friend on… in a manner that would surely waste half the Scot’s playing energy. James loves those courtside cheers, egging him on to further heroics, with utter belief from the people who know him best. He has their full backing. He thrives on the positive atmosphere.
And he doesn’t want to let those guys down. If he loses, he knows he’ll be losing for more people than just himself. Many more.
Which brings us to the link between all of these components:
Straight-up country representation.
When you’re on that Davis Cup court, James Ward doesn’t win a single set, a single point, a single game. When all is said and done, the final line is “Game, set, match… Great Britain.”
And that seems to be what James needs
Fact: Ward is not an ‘elite’ tennis player. He’s not destined for top 20 status – although anything could happen.
But despite Davis Cup triumphs, despite his crazy Queens run, James is still improving. And with potentially years until his retirement, there is one big stage in particular where James could produce the highlight if his career.
Who has considered this: James Ward, the Olympian?
Let us think about it for a moment. James is currently ranked world number 106. Earlier this year he was one spot off a top 100 ranking, at world number 101. Of the points he has to defend, many come in the latter end of the year, and at Challenger level competition. At his current ranking, Ward is spending more time contesting ATP qualifiers and main draws – and just a few wins here and there at this level should suffice to cover the tournament-long haul of a Challenger victory.
There is already little more than a year to go until the 2016 Rio Olympics, and the tournament draw is decided earlier than that – just after the French Open. Less time to gain points, yes… but also less time to lose them.
James doesn’t have to be spectacular. The lower levels of the ATP don’t carry the supremacy of Djokovic, Federer and Nadal. All he needs to do is get some wins – say at least one or two wherever he goes. A couple of deepish runs in the right places wouldn’t be a bad idea, either. If he’s done it once, he can do it again.
The fact is, Ward doesn’t need to soar into the Olympics. He just needs to scrape in. And once he’s scraped in, it’s all systems go! He may not have the raucous crowd support, and he may not have that reassuring voice in his ear.
But he’ll have the team atmosphere that he so enjoys. And of course, the most important factor: Country representation.
There are several beauties of tennis, and this is one of them. That although the legends reign supreme in the main spotlight, there will always be multitudes of underlying success stories beneath them. On a different level, and rated by a different standard of achievement, it’s true. But whether they merge together like the sea, or can be picked out like distant stars, they will exist – and mean as much to one person as each of Serena’s prestigious Grand Slams mean to her.
If he gets there, it wouldn’t be crazy to imagine that one day we’ll find ourselves saying to each other, “Oh, James Ward! The Olympic quarter-finalist!”
Davis Cup has allowed James to show his potential.
The Olympics would let him fulfil it.
It’s an intriguing possibility – and one that James must start working towards right now. This week, the Londoner is in the main draw of the Barcelona Open, after coming through three rounds of qualifying. In the first round is a sight we’ve seen on several occasions: James with a winnable opener. He leads his head-to-head 1-0 versus opponent Marsel Ilhan, and the Turk is ranked modestly at 84.
Time and again, it’s these opportunities we have seen James choke on. Maybe the pressure of expectation gets to him. Maybe he tells himself that surely he should get this one- and hence drives himself away from victory.
But if James Ward the Olympian is to become a reality, these are the gifts he needs to unwrap. The chances he needs to take.
He has the ability. He has the game. He has his days.
Will tomorrow be one of them?
Watch this space.
James Ward is Olympics-bound.
And the journey starts here.
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